OGP Moving Toward Approval of Revised Civic Space Policy

13 September 2014

By Toby McIntosh

The Open Government Partnership is nearing approval of a policy to address complaints that some member governments are interfering with nongovernmental organizations or reducing fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression.

The so-called “response space” policy, to be discussed by the Steering Committee Sept. 25, has been modified during nine months of behind-the-scenes deliberations.

The changes in the second draft would appear to slightly reduce the likelihood of governments being called to task.

The policy envisions a process of investigating valid complaints and working with governments to remedy problems, with the possible sanction of naming a government an “inactive” member.

Significantly, Significant

The policy includes five possible areas that could trigger OGP action.

One potentially important wording change would apply the policy only if the government’s action “significantly” reduces civic space in four specific areas. (Emphasis added in contrasting examples below from the two drafts.)

Latest version:

  • Introduction of new/revised policies or actions that significantly reduce the space for non-governmental organizations to work independently, voice critiques, and/or receive funding from domestic or international sources (e.g. new NGO laws).

In the prior version, the word “significant” was but used to describe what causes a problem not the magnitude of the result

  • Introduction of new/revised policies or significant incidents that reduce the space for non-governmental organizations to work independently, voice critique, and/or receive funding (e.g. new NGO laws).

The second draft drops one the six original justifications for an OGP review:

  • Harassment and intimidation of civil society.

The five criteria are:

  • Introduction of new/revised policies or actions that significantly reduce access to information for citizens and civil society.
  • Introduction of new/revised policies or actions that significantly reduce the space for non-governmental organizations to work independently, voice critiques, and/or receive funding from domestic or international sources (e.g. new NGO laws).
  • Manipulation of the OGP process by governments in terms of civil society participation (e.g. only inviting GONGOs to participate in consultations).
  • Introduction of new/revised policies, laws, or practices, or actions, that significantly reduce enjoyment of fundamental freedoms, notably freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, and freedom to associate.
  • Introduction of new/revised policies or actions that significantly reduce online or offline media freedom, or threaten media ownership and independence.

Steering Committee Review Upcoming

Approval by the Steering Committee is expected Sept. 25.

At a May meeting, the response policy was approved “in principle,” but not finalized. (See previous FreedomInfo.org article.) The Criteria and Standards Subcommittee in June produced a revised draft that was circulated within the Steering Committee for comment.

Both drafts are on the OGP website here. The new one is labeled “September 2014 Proposed Response Police,” and the second is within a document called “May 4-5 2014 SC Meeting, DRAFT Background Documents.” The site also includes the agenda for the September meeting to be held in New York. Steering Committee meetings are closed.

The policy has been a high priority for the civil society representatives who make up half of the Steering Committee, sparked by repressive actions by some member governments. A recent editorial in The Economist urges the OGP “to stop the trend spreading.” A key goal, the proposed policy says, is to preserve OGP credibility.

Subcommittee Decides

The OGP’s planned process includes two major “stages” to handle what have been renamed from “complaints” to “concerns.”

These concerns can be brought to the OGP by organizations, including civil society groups and, added in the latest draft, a “media organization.”

In the first stage the validity of the concern is assessed,

The six-member Criteria and Standards Subcommittee decides whether the concern is merited, by a two-thirds vote if no consensus is reached. The Steering Committee would not review the decision.

The draft policy says, “All the response policy steps are to be carried out in accordance with OGP’s disclosure policy.” This would appear to make materials related to response policy action subject to disclosure upon request, subject to exemptions. Subcommittee minutes, however, are not disclosed under the policy.

Variety of Possible Actions

Once the subcommittee certifies the concern as valid, the OGP could take a variety of actions:

  1. Engage in or broker diplomatic outreach to the government concerned at the official and/or political level, including from the co-chairs.
  2. Write an official letter from the Support Unit to the OGP point of contact in the country informing them that the Criteria and Standards subcommittee adopted the report on the concern (the point of contact should already have been informed by the Support Unit that a concern was being investigated).
  3. Offer to broker technical assistance to work on the issues raised in the concern.
  4. Contact multilateral partners active in the country to help address the issues raised in the concern.
  5. Invite the OGP point of contact in the country to work with the Criteria and Standards subcommittee in establishing a work plan and a timeline for the country to address the situation, where applicable.

Three Months to `Improve”

The second draft sets a three-month deadline for improvement. No deadline was specified in the first draft. It says:

If the stage 1 interventions fail to have the desired impact, or the situation does not improve within three months (even after the establishment of a work plan and a timeline where applicable), the Criteria and Standards subcommittee is to recommend to the full OGP Steering Committee that one of the following stage 2 actions take place:

Recommend that the OGP co-chairs invite the government principal to attend a special session of the Steering Committee to discuss the situation and consequences for the country’s participation in OGP.

Recommend the OGP co-chairs author a letter to the country informing them they are to be temporarily listed as inactive in OGP until the concern is resolved.

Interim Policy, Comment Period

“There is to be an initial pilot phase of one year, after which the Criteria and Standards subcommittee plans to submit a review on its implementation to the full Steering Committee,” according to the draft proposal.

It says further:

Public comments are also to be considered. This review is to include recommendations for any suggested changes to the policy and is to focus on two objectives:

Assisting the country in question to overcome difficulties and to help re-establish an environment for government and civil society collaboration, and

Safeguarding the Open Government Declaration and mitigating reputational risks to OGP

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